Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Overrated Italian markets?

Recently, I came across an American blogger’s bid on what sights and activities to avoid when visiting Italy as a tourist. One of the top time wasters on his list was street markets, which resemble old-fashioned charity shops that have moved all their stuff outdoors. I have, regrettably, lost the link, but the gist the argument was that the things offered for sale in Italian markets are everyday groceries and amenities that may have interest for the locals, whereas tourists look in vain for herbs, specialties, food to go, ready-made delicacies, crafts, flea market bargains. While outdoor markets in neighbouring France are a symphony for the senses, Italian markets are plain boring and not recommendable as a tourist outing.

The blogger may have a point. The few tourists who visit my local Italian market in late July generally look lost with lifeless eyes, closed body language and an uninviting attitude. You see a tight group mother, father and a couple of children clinging to money belts, handbags and purses. They arrive late in the morning, when the sun and the heat beat down with no mercy, and walk around sweaty and groaning in their beach suits. Their disappointment at not being able to find a cafe or a shop selling ice cream is very tangible.

Markets in southern Italy are usually held at a completely shadeless campo sportivo outside town. The traders are ordinary shopkeepers with VAT registration, fixed positions and a license to sell a certain type of goods in six cities within a specific administrative area in the province, and they start work at 5 in the morning, along with the most determined housewives. Italian families go to the market to buy bulks of vegetables, fruit, fish, salumi and other supermarket goods that market vendors can offer fresh at cheaper prices and higher quality.

At the market you will also find the peculiar spring to a specific curtain rod, wash tubs of coloured plastic, towels and awnings, but the soap house department has limited the tourist appeal. Folkloristic interest focuses on the few pensioners selling home-pickled capers, olives and chillies, and the clothes vendors with a range spanning grandma style underwear, synthetic dresses and jeans with small flaws to less than 15 euro. Among the random clothes heaps you may also find some really hot fashion hits, but it takes practice and luck to make a good bargain.

And that is the charm of Italian street markets, along with the knowledge that the supply changes, if you go to another town across provincial boundaries. Each place has its own specialities, and in the big cities like Mantova, Carpi and Civitanova Marche it is fantastic to wake up Saturday morning and see the central squares transformed into a patchwork of stalls and marquees, where you can get lost in the crowd, window shop with your hands and sit down at a busy café to enjoy your latte and brioscia.

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